Research

PUBLICATIONS 

“Toward a Sharp Semantics/Pragmatics Distinction,” Synthese, forthcoming.
Abstract:  The semantics/pragmatics distinction was once considered central to the philosophy of language, but recently the distinction’s viability and importance have been challenged.  In opposition to the growing movement away from the distinction, I argue that we really do need it, and that we can draw the distinction sharply if we draw it in terms of the distinction between non-mental and mental phenomena.  On my view, semantic facts arise from context-independent meaning, compositional rules, and non-mental elements of context, whereas pragmatic facts are a matter of speakers’ mental states and hearers’ inferences about them.  I argue for this treatment of the distinction by comparing it to some other extant treatments (in terms of “what is said,” and in terms of the involvement of context) and then defending it against several challenges.  Two of the challenges relate to possible intrusion of mental phenomena into semantics, and the third has to do with possible over-restriction of the domain of pragmatics.

“Walking the Tightrope: Unrecognized Conventions and Arbitrariness,” Inquiry 60(8), 2017:  867–887.
Abstract:  Unrecognized conventions—practices that are conventional even though their participants do not recognize them as such—play central roles in shaping our lives. They range from the indispensable (e.g. unrecognized linguistic conventions) to the insidious (e.g. some of our gender conventions). Unrecognized conventions pose a challenge for accounts of conventions because it is difficult to incorporate the distinctive arbitrariness of conventions—the fact that conventions always have alternatives—without accidentally excluding many unrecognized conventions. I develop an Accessibility Requirement that allows us to account for both arbitrariness and unrecognized conventions. Specifically, I argue that a conventional practice must have at least one alternative that is at least approximately as good and at least approximately as accessible as the conventional practice itself, independent of the dominance the practice gained as it became conventional. In the course of arguing for this requirement, I also show that two prominent accounts of conventions, David Lewis’s and Ruth Garrett Millikan’s, run into problems with capturing the arbitrariness of conventions. The Accessibility Requirement opens the door to improved accounts of conventions by precisely identifying the way in which conventions are arbitrary.

“Understanding the Intentions Behind the Referential/Attributive Distinction,” Erkenntnis 82(2), 2017:  351–362.
Abstract:  In his recently published John Locke Lectures, Saul Kripke attempts to capture Keith Donnellan’s referential/attributive distinction for definite descriptions using a distinction between general and specific intentions. I argue that although Kripke’s own way of capturing the referential/attributive distinction is inadequate, we can use general and specific intentions to successfully capture the distinction if we also distinguish between primary and secondary intentions. An attributive use is characterized by the fact that the general intention is either the primary or only designative intention, whereas a referential use occurs when a specific intention is either the primary or only designative intention. Along the way, accounts of the referential/attributive distinction offered by John Searle and by Kepa Korta and John Perry come in for criticism as well, and we’ll also discuss Michael O’Rourke’s dual-aspect uses of definite descriptions.

“Epistemic Evaluations: Consequences, Costs and Benefits,” with Peter Graham, Zachary Bachman, and Meredith McFadden, Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4(4), 2015:  7–13.

 

DISSERTATION:  Conventions and Expression Meaning

In Conventions and Expression Meaning, I argue that social conventions are types of behavior that (1) are copied widely within a group and (2) admit of equally good, equally accessible alternatives. Then I use this account of conventions to develop a new account of expression meaning, which is the context-independent meaning of a word in a language. I argue that a type of sound counts as a meaningful linguistic expression in virtue of its use being a conventional way of getting people to involve objects or relations in their activity. Involvement of objects and relations in activity can take many forms, from causing objects to stand in a relation, to preventing objects from standing in a relation, to forming a belief that objects stand in a relation. In other words, sounds become meaningful expressions when they become widespread, copied ways of changing the world by influencing others. This account of expression meaning stands out from others in the literature by analyzing expression meaning in terms of observable behavior rather than speakers’ intentions or beliefs when they use an expression. After building this account of expression meaning, I apply it to specific types of expressions from proper names to indexicals, verbs, and quantifier expressions.

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